Ambition can be a very double-edged thing. In a recent Q&A session, Sharlyn Lauby – better known as HR Bartender – offered the following thoughts on HR functions’ relationships with both employees and with their organisation:
For years, people have been talking about HR getting the proverbial “seat at the table” or being a “strategic business partner”. My concern is do we really know what that looks like? When the business world is moving quickly, everyone in the C-Suite is being asked to adapt. Including HR. If HR doesn’t have a seat at the table now, when they get one…what kind of seat will it be? The one they need today or the old one from 5 years ago.”
It reminded me, if you’ll indulge what may seem like a flippant comparison, of a point made by Rick at Flip Chart Fairytales three years ago in a post called Seniority ain’t what it used to be – a point that speaks so clearly to those of us of a certain age that I’ve since heard it tumble from the lips of Jeremy Hardy (on The News Quiz) and The Rev Richard Coles (on Have I Got News For You). Essentially, all three noted the way that something we’ve been working towards (in Rick’s, Jeremy’s and The Rev’s case, it was a pension) seems somehow to remain just as far away no matter how eagerly we approach it:
Why is it that, whenever I am on the cusp of seniority, the perks of that seniority are withdrawn just before I get there?
This seems to have been the story of my life. It started when I was a kid. At the school I went to, sixth-formers were expected to give punishments to younger pupils for minor misdemeanours, by making them write lines. As soon as I got to the sixth-form the practice was abolished. In a similar vein, the sixth-form centre, once a private fiefdom in a separate building, was replaced by a crappy common room in the main school building, under the watchful eyes of the authorities.”
Maybe it’s one of life’s lessons – albeit one of the ones that takes a little longer to sink in than, say, simultaneous equations or how to lie while smiling – that rewards and promises are far from the same thing, and that the things we see as being our longed-for ‘just desserts’ can quite often turn out to be, … well, just deserts. And life has a way of putting the sand into sandwiches.
There are also the incentives that we set ourselves – in Rick’s case, he was candid enough to joke that he was looking forward to a mid-life crisis characterised by “a Harley-Davidson and a bit of adultery”, but it might equally be something that symbolises a more conventional lifestyle (or an equally clichéd but less disreputable status symbol or two) – and the incentives that others offer. The carrots, rather than the sticks. Despite most of us regularly removing vegetables that have seen better days from the crisper section of our refrigerators, we also cling to the idea that the metaphorical carrots have an infinite shelf-life. Despite the education of a domestic budget, we overlook that the carrots are only ever an example of what we – where ‘we’ means the person paying for the carrots – can afford at the time.
If we’re going to not only age gracefully – while ruefully recognising Flip Chart Rick’s observation that “A graceful transition doesn’t sound nearly as much fun” – but maturely, perhaps we need to rethink not just our aspirations but our attitudes. To borrow Rick’s analogy, a Harley and a mistress (or a more feminine equivalent, of course) may appeal in whatever we define as mid-life, but our older and possibly wiser self might prefer a life that corners better in the wet and gives our domestic partners or offspring fewer reasons for grief – be it theirs or ours.
While we might tell ourselves that rewards are some kind of treat or prize, they too fall into two categories. The rewards we give ourselves – and we are always the best judges of what we want, even if that’s not the same thing as what we either need or deserve – and the rewards that we get from others. The nature of the latter is usually not at our discretion: to go back to Sharlyn Lauby’s metaphor, HR may ‘want a chair’ but can neither define the type of chair, the type of table at which it sits, or the company HR will find in the other seats should its own longed-for seat be forthcoming.
The danger is that, in focusing all their desire on ‘finally getting the chair’, HR can overlook two important things. Firstly, that the nature of the chair is determined by the needs of the rest of the table, not by the desires of HR. The chair is a metaphor, not a masterpiece of ergonomics: it is unlikely to be offered with a thought to whatever the metaphorical equivalents of lumbar support or posture control might be. The occupant will be expected to adapt to the chair, not vice versa. HR, steeped as we would hope it to be, in recruiting for potential should be aware of this and recognise that this is a case of the boot being on the other foot. (Or perhaps that cushion being under the other buttock.)
The second is the reason for being offered the chair. Again, HR should be able to avoid an obvious pitfall here: most evidence shows that ambition is a poor flag – especially in isolation – of future success after internal elevation. Ability is an obvious criteria, but the component that makes the biggest impact in the ‘cocktail’ that constitutes the most palatable candidate for promotion is engagement. HR wins the seat – and in some organisations, already occupies it – not because of its self-contained excellence, of for what it has done for itself. The chair is a reward for contribution – not just historically, but in the future. You get the chair when the rest of the table think that you have earned the right to sit with them, and because your future contribution will be valued.
If you want the chair, figure out what the person sitting in it looks like and does, how they behave and interact, and what they bring to the table’s collective conversation. The rest is simply furniture.